acid logicpresents...

Interview with Peter Murphy

Photo credits:
Alex Crick - photographer
Panda Musgrove - photo processing

By J. Kim
June 16, 2002

What makes Peter Murphy such an enthralling performer are the dualities and paradoxes that course through his music and performances. He led the seminal gothic band Bauhaus through the musical underground of the late 1970s and 1980s while simultaneously carving out a new musical genre and encouraging millions of teenagers to embrace the dark side. Yet as a solo performer, he does not dwell on the past; the closest he comes to playing Bauhaus songs at his live shows are the David Bowie covers (Bauhaus' cover of "Ziggy Stardust" is arguably their best-known song outside of the band's followers).

He is proud of his signature voice, but lists himself as backing vocals on his new album, Dust.

"I sort of have a little bit of a clever attitude whereby I imagine people would know who did lead vocals," said Murphy in a phone interview during his 2002 U.S. tour. He quickly points out, however, that he has always done all his backing vocals.

Cultural influences are also another duality for Murphy. Born a Brit, he emigrated to Turkey with his wife nearly 10 years ago. The move influenced him profoundly. "I thought my god we're going to a mystic land and there the word mystic is a misnomer - there's no such word mystic, there's just the reality of god which is in the marketplace...That's what really attracting me to the Islamic cosmology. It's not an Arabic-exclusive reality - it's the raison d'etre that manifests in all creation," said Murphy.

Unlike dwellers of some Muslim countries, the Turks still consider music an essential element of not only religion, but also of daily life.

"The music there is a sort of Arabesque and pop and mixed with religious music - it's kind of like this marketplace of life. I was nicely disillusioned and realized that I could be a rock star and an icon and not change a dot except that I can refine myself where I'm acting as a good Muslim," said Murphy.

He immediately recognized how some Westerners, particularly in the United States, have a dim view of the Muslim religion. He immediately called Osama bin Laden a "road-raged Muslim" and insisted that he had abandoned the essential message of the religion, which Murphy defines as love.

"Religions has had a bad name for 2002 years now. Jesus has had really bad P.R. for a long time. The prophet Muhammed revered Jesus and confirmed him as the messiah and his brother," said Murphy who further explained that when Jesus described the one who will come after me, which Christians interpret as the Holy Spirit, Muslims interpret as Muhammad in that Jesus was prophesizing about Muhammad. He confirmed once again the absurdity of wars between Christians, Muslims and Jews considering they all worship the same god only with different variations, just like one can order the same dish at a Thai restaurant and have it one star or five star.

Muslim worship music entered Murphy's life via was Kanai Karacha, whom Murphy calls the Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn of Turkey. (Mercan Dede, who played the traditional Turkish instruments on Dust has compared Murphy to Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn as well. Murphy humbly declined the comparison to whom he calls "the master".) He recalled listening to zikirs, devotional chants. The theory of the zikir is that when the chants of remembering of a quality of God (i.e. love, compassion) repeated, through the repetition it's really God remembering himself through the invoker of the chant. Murphy clung to this idea.

"Also, the listening of it has an effect and that really sort of lit a spark in me which is now growing into a blaze if you like," said Murphy. That blaze inspired him to create Dust. Murphy's wife directs Modern Dance Turkey; while listening to a CD for one of her performances, Murphy discovered the work of Dede and asked him to play on his new album. Dede had emigrated from Turkey to Canada several years ago. Murphy jokes he is more Eastern now than is Dede and Dede is more Western than Murphy.

Dede's first step of the collaboration was listening to the Just for Love album which Murphy recorded on his last tour. Dede was hooked. "He said it was the best album he's heard in 20 years and that was all very nice," said Murphy.

Dede immediately asked if he could revise the songs "My Last Two Weeks" and "Subway" and incorporate them into the new album and onto the album they went. "As was evidenced on the Just for Love live album, my work seems to have a quality that can be rearranged in any form because the songs and the singer is only half of the matter," said Murphy.

Throughout the production of Dust, Dede kept Murphy's vocals prominent. The result is the impassioned vocals of Murphy gliding over Middle Eastern sounds like a magic carpet. "Just for Love" evolves from Murphy's powerful sentiment into a wonderful Tabla-driven trance in the same vein Sky Cries Mary songs would shift from the simple elegance of Anisa Romero's voice into a hypnotic and explosive trance. "My Last Two Weeks" soars in the new version adding yet another paradox to the mix - it's a seven minute song that the listener hopes never ends.

While infusing Middle Eastern instrumentation (such as the Tabla, Kanun and the Classical Kemenche), into dark rock, they wanted to avoid appearing as the Westerners coopting a traditional sound from another land then cashing in on the World Beat boondoggle. He knows if people want to listen to "ethnic" Turkish music, they can find Omar Faruk Tekbilek in any major record store. Dede encouraged Murphy he could create a fusion without insulting either musical form.

"[Making this album ]without appearing dilettantish was foremost in my mind while I've been carrying around this album in my mind for a number of years. I never felt I could really make an album that respected the authenticity of its source and of course Peter Gabriel was always respectful of that," said Murphy.

Not only has the music of Turkey influenced Murphy's songs but also has the dance influenced his performance. The influence of watching his wife's company and classic bellydancing in Turkey reflects in the intricate articulation of Murphy's hands, eyes, etc. "I'm quite a sponge and a bastard Renaissance man. I can really take something and do my version of it. I'm a little bit like a child at about 2 years of age who sees somebody dancing and singing then they start imitating and that's how I see myself. I'm not a very good academic, so that's how I learn," said Murphy.

For years, fans have also watched Murphy spin like a dervish, and bounce around the stage, ricocheting between joyous celebration and stern contemplation. His trademark is an exposed lightbulb, which he cradles in his hands, reflecting light at various angles, playing with the light like a soundless Theremin. Murphy achieves a rare performance paradox that Prince has mastered in that every movement seems both intricately choreographed and utterly spontaneous at the same time. He creates a basic structure, for his visual performance, and allows for improvisation within that framework.

"I can work in that sort of frame with a vitality that is always looking for a newness," said Murphy. "I respect my audience to the extent that they will know when there's a moment of complacency or sort of jadedness. I know that, so I'm always trying to transport myself with the audience while taking the audience with me."

Murphy enjoys a stronger connection with his audience than many artists do. While many artists will deign to slap the hands of a few straining fans, Murphy will hold his fans hands for several minutes while singing.

"I've got to keep it where we are all strangers but there's a very intimate dialogue happening where there's a connectedness. Every person who has an audience has that, but [the question is] whether they want to acknowledge it and make it part of the experience," said Murphy.

Though his shows are intimate affairs, Murphy has an air of otherworldliness: they may touch him but the fans never lose sight of their relationship to Murphy as almost disciples to guru. This dynamic dichotomy provide the shows with an essential tension. Murphy considers the guru element a necessary apparatus in the performance. "When you're listening to something you must give it complete attention, so I make them listen," said Murphy.

Not only do they listen, but Murphy listens back. At his May 19 show in Seattle, WA, he asked the audience if they had any questions, then passed around the microphone for an impromptu chat. One audience member asked him, "What are you trying to do?" to which the cheeky Murphy answered, "Lose weight, look gorgeous and sell lots of records." Murphy's fans know there is much more than that, and it's that very complexity and depth that has kept them rapt for more than 20 years while adding new ones at every show.

Check out some of our other Great Acid Logic Music Interviews:
Kool Keith - By Semone Maksimovic Tricky - By Semone Maksimovic
Me First and the Gimme Gimmes - By Semone Maksimovic Nada Surf - By Semone Maksimovic
And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (II) - By Semone Maksimovic And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead - By Semone Maksimovic
JG Thirlwell - Foetus, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia - By Sandra Kay Peter Murphy - By J. Kim
Mojo Nixon - By Wil Forbis The Great Kat - Wil Forbis
Ricki Rockett of Poison - By Wil Forbis Gerald V. Casale of DEVO - By Wil Forbis
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